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Perfecting Dynamics

Rod Sims | January 2016

    Understanding how to manage dynamics is a critically important component of writing or arranging for your ensembles. I can recall the teacher of my first orchestration class emphasizing dynamics as a pillar of his instruction. He would say, “Just as you vary your voice in a conversation, you should vary the dynamics of your orchestral composition to create interest for the listener.” His point, while taken under advisement, seemed a trifle fussy to me at the time. I was trying to attend to so many other factors like staying within a particular instrument’s range, avoiding too much doubling, and making good use of the entire ensemble. Shortly after, I hurriedly wrote a piece with minimal attention paid to dynamic variation. Later, when the piece was performed a listener remarked, “It doesn’t change.” Lesson learned.
    Each subsequent assignment I wrote was scrutinized for dynamic variation. However, to quote an old adage, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I soon went the opposite extreme and began marking up each piece I wrote with dynamic changes that looked obtrusive in the score. I had made the opposite mistake and created a score that was laden with dynamic markings, made playing the piece unnecessarily difficult, and did little to support the overall composition. I had gone from one extreme to another. To reconcile the proper use of dynamics, I needed to balance using and over-using dynamics to produce an artful result. This is how my realization on dynamic variation was born.

Instrument Registers
    I soon learned that dynamics are not simply the result of using variations of piano and forte but rather affected by the careful use of instrumentation. For example, the low frequency of the tuba has the ability to carry farther than a higher-register instrument, but with much less piercing ability than a piccolo. That is why foghorns are low-pitched and police sirens are high-pitched.
    One of the most important tools in balancing dynamics is taking advantage of an instrument’s range. Most books on orchestration recognize that instruments produce marked changes across their range. I can often get the dynamic level I want by using a specific instrument to perform a part. A lower note on a flute’s register can blend nicely, while a higher note speaks clearly. The dynamic level follows this tendency for other instruments, as well.

    A great deal of dynamic variation is possible by entering accents within a part rather than altering the entire section’s dynamic level. I may not want a loud or soft string section, but I want the attack of certain notes to emphasize a feeling or give it a percussive flavor. Jazz drummer Louie Bellson once told me he only played his hi-hat on the second beat of a jazz waltz. This was originally done at the behest of legendary jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, because playing the hi-hat on both the second and third beats made the music sound like a merry-go-round instead of swinging in 34 time. The chick of the hi-hat on the second beat served as an accent that made the piece swing. Less equals more.

Hairpins and Rests
    Momentary rises and falls within a piece are temporary but effective in altering the feel of a composition. Well-placed crescendos and de-crescendos can almost create the same effect as the entire ensemble breathing. It is remarkable how much this can accomplish for a piece. The range in dynamic variation need not fluctuate wildly from soft to loud; even small changes produce a powerful effect. It can lend excitement and anticipation to a passage or create contemplation and tenderness.
    Similarly, nothing is more powerful than rests, because these represent the ultimate in contrast. A rest takes the listener down to absolute silence. It is often said that the space between the notes is just as important as the notes themselves. The momentary pause after the renowned opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is intense. It allows a moment of brief reflection. The power is realized. Moreover, the brief pause also sets up the next four equally memorable notes.

Number of Instruments
    If every instrument in an ensemble plays all the time, the result is a wall of sound that is both monotonous and fatiguing. By using a combination of parts that oscillates effectively between players and sections within a piece you gain the added benefit of dynamic alteration without the need to demarcate these differences with triple forte to triple piano. In short, fewer instruments playing produce their own dynamic variation in and of themselves. Accomplishing this can be as simple as doubling parts or having entire sections drop out.

    I cannot resist noticing a muted instrument. My ears always perk and my attention is diverted almost without exception. It has an arresting quality. A mute affects not only the timbre, but also the volume and presence of an instrument. The buzzy quality from a brass player’s Harmon mute isn’t necessarily softer than no mute, but it is also enhanced by its ability to cut through the ensemble with a unique alteration of the instrument’s sound quality.
    This is true of more than brass. Muted strings can do much more than soften the strings. Arranger Nelson Riddle once commented, “A muted string section produces a sound that seems covered in velvet.” It does more than reduce the volume; it creates a lush feeling that supports the other sections.

Playing Techniques
    Performance technique is an important aspect of dynamics. When string players move from arco to pizzicato there will be variation in dynamics. There will also be variation depending on whether bowing takes place near the bridge or away from it or where the notes are played on the bow. Another obvious variation is the use of sforzando to vary the attack, and at the same time, volume. Divisi playing also has an effect, embellishing the harmony while compromising overall volume.

Blended Instruments
    Composer Thomas Goss had this to say about orchestral balance: “It’s not simply a discussion of which instrument is louder and which is quieter. It’s about contrasts of color, pitch, distance, and meaning . . . A deep understanding of dynamic relationships is essential for the working orchestrator. Along with this should be a perception of not just the relative volume of instruments, but also their ability to project.” Individually, instruments have character, but when blended with another instrument you create a unique timbre. The blend of an oboe and flute, for example, produces a sound apart from either instrument played individually. There is both power and subtlety when merging sounds from two or more instruments.

Dynamics Are Not Absolutes
    Goss also asserts that relative loud and soft as expressed through dynamic symbols should be rejected as overly simplistic and misguided. He states, “This makes perfect sense if you think of dynamics as a thermometer with fixed scientifically measurable values. If mezzo piano and mezzo forte are neighbors on a linear scale, then certainly there should be a point in the middle that is simply mezzo, shouldn’t there?”
    But Goss points out forte is more than just loud; it represents playing with force. Piano isn’t simply soft; it is playing with restraint. The physicality of bowing and breath are dynamic processes, not simply graduations of highs and lows on a meter. Synthesized music often sounds artificial because of the lack of randomness in the mix. It lacks the human element that comes with subtle variations. This is such a recognized phenomenon that synthesized music offers the option of using randomized volume as a software command to create an organic sound that better approximates a live performance. As composers, conductors, and musicians, we should look at dynamic indications as a guideline, but not in the same way a sound engineer might try to quantify forte as 100 and pianissimo as 50 on a digital display.

Final Thoughts
    The indiscriminant use of dynamic indications belies the subtlety of evaluating the need for dynamic variation. You could play a piece at mezzoforte from beginning to end and still have variation in dynamics. You may be deceived into thinking that the presence or absence of dynamics in your score is proof that you have embraced the importance of dynamic variation. Unfortunately, simply placing them prominently in the score offers no assurance of understanding. The options for dynamic changes are much wider than can be achieved from adopting a soft-medium-loud mindset. If done with the same care as the selection of notes, rests, key signature, instrumentation, and tempo, a greater result will occur.